Posts on his Facebook page rail against religion. But was that the motive of a gunman who allegedly killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina?
As thousands of mourners joined funeral prayers for the three victims, conflicting details emerged about the suspect, 46-year-old Craig Hicks.
His wife, who attorneys said is in the process of getting a divorce, described her husband as someone who believes everyone is equal. Karen Hicks told CNN affiliate WTVD, something inside his head must have snapped before the shooting.
Neighbors told reporters that Craig Hicks was known for angrily confronting people over everything from loud music to parking issues in the area. One described him as someone who showed “equal opportunity anger.” At one point last year, the situation got so bad neighbors organized a meeting “to talk about how he kind of made everyone feel uncomfortable and unsafe,” she said.
But the victims’ families said there’s no question religion was behind the gunman’s decision to pull the trigger.
“We have no doubt that the way they looked and the way they believed had something to do with this,” said Mohammad Abu-Salha, whose two daughters were killed in the shooting.
A Facebook page that is believed to belong to Hicks includes many posts that are critical of religion, particularly Christianity.
“If you plan to be enjoying heaven while multitudes are tortured … then you are as much a sociopath as the god that you worship,” one photo says. Another post describes religion as “the world’s most successful pyramid scam.”
The page describes Craig Hicks as an atheist and an anti-theist.
Anti-theists are a particularly outspoken group of atheists who can be confrontational about their disbelief, researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga said in a recent study.
“Anti-theists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental,” the researchers wrote. “The anti-theist has a clear and — in their view, superior — understanding of the limitations and danger of religions.”
But Karen Hicks told reporters that the shooting had nothing to do with religion. Her husband believed in people’s rights, she said.
“We were married for seven years and that is one thing that I do know about him. He often champions on his Facebook page for the rights of many individuals, for same-sex marriages, abortion, race. He just believed, and I know that’s just one of the things I know about him, is everyone is equal,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are or what you believe.”
The Facebook profile includes numerous posts advocating same-sex marriage rights.
There are photos of Craig and Karen Hicks together at Disney World, and a photo of him riding an all-terrain vehicle in the woods.
A post on the page last month showed a photo of a gun on a scale. “Yes, that is 1 pound 5.1 ounces for my loaded 38 revolver, its holster, and five extra rounds in a speedloader,” the caption reads.
Authorities haven’t said what kind of gun the suspect used in this week’s shooting. But one 911 caller described hearing six shots.
Asked about the Facebook page and the gun photo at a press conference on Wednesday, his wife declined to comment.
Instead, attorney Michele English stepped in.
“Mrs. Hicks has told us that her husband did have a concealed weapons permit. He was lawfully carrying a gun. He was a champion for Second Amendment rights,” English said. “He believed strongly in them and the constitutionality behind those.”
The Office of the Capital Defender in Durham, North Carolina, said it will be representing Craig Hicks. His attorney, Stephen Freedman, did not respond to a request for comment.
Recently, the accused gunman had been planning to play a very different role in the courtroom.
He was studying to become a paralegal at Durham Technical Community College. He was supposed to graduate in May, his wife said.
She told reporters that the shooting happened after her husband came home from class Tuesday.
At the school, Craig Hicks was an “exemplary student,” college spokesman Carver Weaver said, and no trouble about him was ever reported.
Susan Sutton, who taught him in her classroom just before the shooting, told WRAL that HIcks was “bright, hard-working and kind.”
‘He kind of made everyone … feel unsafe’
But at the Finley Forest condominium complex where Hicks lived, neighbors painted a different picture.
Christopher Lafreniere, a driver who often towed cars from the complex, told WRAL that Hicks called so much to request that cars be towed that it became a problem for the company.
“He didn’t like people parking in his space, and he was really, really adamant,” Lafreniere said. “I didn’t understand why.”
Last year, the problem became so severe that members of the community had a meeting to discuss it, Samantha Maness, 25, told the News & Observer newspaper.
“There were just a lot of instances of him getting people’s cars towed, and just being very aggressive towards anyone who came, visitors, residents,” she said. “And so someone in the community organized a meeting to talk about how he kind of made everyone in the community feel uncomfortable and unsafe.”
Asked whether she thought the shooting had anything to do with religion, Maness said Hicks displayed “equal opportunity anger.”
“I have seen and heard him be very unfriendly to a lot of people in this community,” she said.
“He was very angry, anytime I saw him,” she told WRAL.